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Will Schools Swap Fall and Spring Sports?

20 Jul, 2020

By: Michael Popke
Smart Solutions Could Include Delaying Contact Sports

A proposal to play football in the spring and perhaps some spring sports in the fall is beginning to gain steam, as decisions loom about how high school and college sports will address the coronavirus.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently made her case for flipping high school seasons — and thereby delaying the start of close-contact sports — to state media.

“I’m … calling on the Michigan High School Athletic Association to consider postponing fall sports that have the impossibility of social distancing that’s a part of them,” she said. “Consider moving those to the spring and running some of the more individualized sports like track and field or tennis or golf to the fall.”

“That’s been one of the things that has been discussed during the whole conversation and everything is still on the table,” John Johnson, spokesperson for the MHSAA, told The Detroit News.

Whitmer is not alone when it comes to a possible flip-flop. “There are some states that are considering flipping seasons,” she told the “Jamie and Stoney” radio show on Detroit’s 97.1 FM. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not, but they are ideas and thoughts that people are bringing to the conversation to continue to have these sporting opportunities for young people but also keep them safe.”

Wisconsin, however, is not one of those states to which Whitmer was referring. “[A]t this time, we have not spent any serious staff time and discussion on executing a plan to flip seasons,” Todd Clark, director of communications for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, wrote in an email to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Meanwhile, The New York Post cited “increased momentum” to move the 2020 college football season to the spring semester.

“What’s most sensible is the spring,” one Power Five athletic director told the paper, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I understand the desire to have it in the fall, and there are challenges if you move all of your fall sports into the spring with all of your spring sports. But the argument here is: We will learn from the NFL experience. To put big-time college football in the spring, in likely an abbreviated season — maybe it’s only a conference format, eight- or nine-game season — we are going to have learned much more about the virus.”

However, no program that typically plays in the spring is going to be willing to do fall play without a lot of soul searching. What is the fall season gets cancelled - are they simply out of luck? If schools agree to switch seasons, is it safe for youth athletes to go out on the field when most states don't have a handle on COVID-19?

“My one great fear is that you play [in] September and then you have a rash of infected people and they call the season off,” added former Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy.

But will moving sports create problems for events that attract travel teams, or will it benefit them? With many states' decisions still hanging in the balance, it's hard to know. Should travel football move forward in the fall as scheduled (and that's a big variable right now), those programs that typically attract high school-age players might be able to take advantage of athletes who now have the free time to participate in such teams. But on programs whose seasons typically run counter to the high school season, a spring football season, for example, could create conflicts and unpleasant choices will have to be made by athletes and their parents. Some states, like South Carolina, authorized only a later start for fall sports, although it's dubious that a few weeks of delay will allow for the develoment of a vaccine or a nationwide drop in the infection rate.

The college sports industry isn't providing any consistent guidance, either. The Post also reported that multiple Division II and III schools have already canceled fall sports, and the Ivy League announced July 8 that it will postpone all fall sports indefinitely until at least Jan. 1, 2021. Whether play will take place at the club level, whether students will show interest in other varsity sports, or whether they will become discouraged and stop playing altogether is unknown. There don't seem to be any uniformly positive outcomes for any of these scenarios, considering they all start with a cancelled season.

There's also the question of whether spectators and families will be able to adapt to the new season schedule.

“Certainly, there are no guarantees that crowds might return to [football] games next spring … but chances are a lot better then than in the next couple of months,” writes Kevin Sherrington in The Dallas Morning News. “I’d rate the odds of even quarter-full stadiums this fall at next to nil. We can’t keep neighborhood bars open. What makes you think football fans would practice social distancing once they’ve had a beer or two or 12? Even if you make fans sit at every other seat, they still have to get up to go to the restroom or concession stand. Who’s telling them to maintain a safe distance from each other while standing in an interminable line. Would you like that job? Who listens to reason when her team is down three touchdowns and the line to the women’s restroom snakes around the stadium? What’s even worse than all of the above is the notion of playing football in front of nobody. Like a tree falling in the forest, only not as exciting.” 

Already, high schools are announcing changes to their schedules. National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) provided an update as of July 20 of state associations that have delayed the start of the fall sports season because of COVID-19. The updates include:

  • Arizona (Golf – August 24; Badminton – August 31; All other fall sports – week of September 7)
  • California (December 2020 or January 2021)
  • District of Columbia (January 4)
  • Kansas (September 8)
  • Kentucky (The golf season schedule is unchanged)
  • Maine (September 8)
  • Massachusetts (September 14)
  • Mississippi (August 10; Football starts August 17)
  • New Jersey (September 14)
  • North Carolina (September 1)
  • South Carolina (August 17)
  • Washington (September 7; Football starts September 5)
  • West Virginia (August 17)

The states below have taken additional measures by postponing all or select fall sports.

  • Georgia —The Georgia High School Association postponed the start of football season until September 4.
  • New Mexico — The NMAA, through Governor recommendations, canceled contact sports competition for the fall. As a result, the 2020 football and soccer seasons have been switched to the spring semester.
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